Denny Hamlin was on his way to the Championship 4 when Ross Chastain made that opportunity disappear in a matter of seconds in the final yards coming to the checkered flag at Martinsville Speedway.
Hamlin was four positions ahead of Chastain coming off the final corner Sunday evening. It would have been enough to advance the Joe Gibbs Racing driver to the final playoff round for the fourth straight year, but Trackhouse driver rode the wall in Turns 3 and 4 and stayed in the throttle to nip Hamlin at the finish line.
“It’s funny but not for me,” Hamlin said of Chastain’s improbable move.
The No. 1 car wound up finishing fifth and Hamlin sixth. On the final lap, Hamlin was worried about what was in front of him, trying to get fourth place from Brad Keselowski, and wasn’t aware of Chastain coming fast behind.
“It was well executed,” Hamlin said. “I didn’t think of it (as embarrassing like Kyle Larson said). These are the rules we play. You got to race inside these walls, and he found a way to do it better than us on the last lap.”
It was a shocking end to Hamlin’s day after he led a race-high 203 of 500 laps and swept both stages. By the end of the second stage, he had led 140 of 260 laps, but he lost control of the race on pit road under the lap 320 caution and never led again.
“For us, it really was one lap,” Hamlin said. “It was one move, one lap, that took us out. Certainly, we should be starting up front and contending to win the race. I think if we do that, we’re still fine but coulda, woulda, shoulda. We didn’t. We didn’t do good enough, and we lost on a move, which (is) fair game.”
Hamlin lined up 12th on the final restart, next to Chastain, after losing spots on pit road. It was the third consecutive slow stop for the No. 11 team.
The Toyota driver started to make quick work of the field and put a gap between himself and Chastain, who stalled in 12th while Hamlin moved further and further through the top 10. But through the final two corners, Chastain passed Chase Briscoe, Bubba Wallace, Joey Logano, William Byron, and then Hamlin coming to the finish line.
“I absolutely hate the result, but I loved our performance,” Hamlin said. “We performed at a top-notch championship level except when we went on pit road and lost control of the lead, and then lost a few more spots — I think 10 spots – on the last three stops. You just can’t do that in this sport. You have to have all facets buttoned up and ready to go.
“The team gave me a great car. I could not thank them enough for giving me a race-winning car, but you have to have all the pieces of the puzzle together, and the one thing that hurt us this year and kept us from having five, six wins in the regular season is the same thing that bit us today. That’s our fault.”
Hamlin praised his team for being solid through the playoffs and said he wasn’t going to throw them under on the bus. On the third and final pit stop, Hamlin believes the left side didn’t get jacked up all the way.
“There is nobody that wants to win as much as the pit crew,” he said of the team. “They’re trying as much as they can, but mistakes happen when you come on pit road seven, eight times. The chances of you having a bad stop are pretty high. These guys are really trying to go fast, and they are some great athletes on these teams, but unfortunately, you can’t throw a pick at the end of the race.
“It seems like we’ve been really good in races, but it seems like it’s always the last pit stop that bites us, and certainly when I knew we restated12th that it was going to be an uphill climb and I was pleasantly surprised that we were able to overcome the uphill climb and put four, five cars between me and Ross. But it wasn’t enough.”
Hamlin entered the day five points below the cutline.
“We wanted to make the final four for four years in a row, but (expletive),” he said. “There’s nothing else I feel like I could do differently; it doesn’t change my emotions of it. But there is nothing my team, Chris Gabehart, Toyota, or anybody could have done differently to change that outcome for us today. We didn’t have it all together.
“It still burns because I’m thinking halfway through the race that this is a cakewalk, we just have to maintain track position. Just maintain. And we didn’t.”